Genetically-engineered moths make spider silk for flameproof pants (Wired UK)

Monster Silk moths are genetically engineered to produce spider silk. They have been engineered with red eyes so scientists can tell them apart from conventional moths

Kraig Labs

Spider silk is widely considered a superfibre, a near magical
material with potential medical and military applications. The
problem is that cost-effective mass production has eluded
scientists for years. Until now, it seems. A Michigan firm has
brought us one step closer thanks to a genetically engineered
silkworm, modified to produce spider silk.

Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, based in Michigan, announced today
that it has found a way to double the production rate of its
commercial product, called Monster Silk. The ramp-up takes the
company another step closer to market, and away from the R&D

Spider silk is stronger and lighter than most other fabrics, so
it could be used in things like body armour, medical sutures and,
oddly, underwear. The US military is experimenting with silk underwear to protect soldiers’…
privates … from explosions, since silk doesn’t melt onto skin when
exposed to heat. It also resists penetration by finer particles
like sand and dirt, which can keep wounds clean.

“Our production system is the only commercially viable
technology for producing spider silk,” says Kim Thompson, Kraig’s
founder and CEO. Genetically engineered silkworms are “the only way
to go.”

Kraig Labs’ spider silk is produced by inserting specific spider
genes into silkworm chromosomes. Then the worms (actually moths)
produce threads nearly identical to spider silk. The company can
vary the silk’s flexibility, strength, and toughness by moving
around the DNA sequence. It’s been talking
about the technology since at least 2010
, and is now finally
moving closer to commercialisation.

Kraig’s current production run is largely headed to Warwick Mills, a specialty
textile manufacturer that focuses on protective applications like
body armour and fireproof wearables. They are making the first
Monster Silk textiles, and their research will lay the groundwork
for the first commercial sales as soon as next year.

Medical and military applications are where the money is, along
with the opportunity to save lives. But those markets will take
years to reach fruition thanks to lengthy FDA and military approval
processes. In the shorter term, Thompson is interested in making
dress shirts and neck ties. The traditional silk clothing market is
worth as much as $5 billion per year. “No one material can ever
satisfy all textile needs,” he says, and he believes spider silk
will see increased usage in textile blends in the near future.

“We’re hoping to add one more arrow to the quiver, and we think
it’s a multi-billion dollar arrow.”

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